The number of empty health-care jobs in Canada has more than doubled and care providers are working more overtime and taking more sick leave since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Statistics Canada.
A report, released last week, shows how nurses, personal support workers and care aides are now coping after struggling through the brunt of the pandemic to keep patients, and themselves, alive.
An all-time high of 95,800 health-care jobs were vacant in the fourth quarter of 2022, more than twice the 2019 fourth-quarter figure of 40,100. Two-thirds of the vacancies were for nurses and support workers.
Overtime rose from an average of seven hours per week in 2019 to 8.6 extra hours – more than a full day per week – in 2022.
Staff missed nearly an extra week of work in 2022 compared with 2019 due to illness – between five and six days for unionized workers and around about five for non-unionized workers.
The president of the Canadian Nurses Association warned the situation will only get worse if changes aren’t made.
“(Nurses) will leave the health-care system and they will work in other areas,” Sylvain Brousseau said, speaking from Blainville, Que.
“And the impact is the risk for the quality and safety for the patients.”
Steven Lewis, a health-care policy professor at Simon Fraser University, called the trends “a perfect storm” of a demoralized and tired workforce.
And because the trends likely feed into each other – many job vacancies means workers will need to work overtime to fill in the gaps and working so many hours then risks causing burnout or sickness – there is no easy solution, he said.
“If we are losing three-and-a half weeks a year for work … in some cases more to illness and in a short-term disability,” he said, “that’s bordering on a crisis.”
With some regions of the country reporting an increase in the number of nursing students, he said it’s not that no one wants to be a health-care worker, but rather that the challenge could lie with the conditions of the workforce.
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Lewis said one solution would be to ensure staff are able to focus on the tasks for which they are trained, leaving nurses with tasks that only nurses can do, for example, and leaving different duties for others.
Rosalie Wyonch, a health policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, a think tank, agreed.
“Anything we can do to streamline processes, remove that type of work that adds stress and doesn’t help with care, would help with making the system more efficient,” she said.
According to the StatCan report, the number of work absences dipped in 2021. And instead of continuing to drop, potentially indicating a return to normal, they rose again in 2022.
Wyonch said that is surprising and concerning.
“If we continue to see that trend, I think we would need to seriously investigate,” she told Global News.
Wyonch, Lewis and Brousseau all said the factors affecting health-care workers existed long before 2019 and the pandemic just exacerbated them.
Failure to address the problems, Wyonch said, would result in further staff shortages and strain on a system on which Canada relies.
“We have a growing population, we have an aging population, and demand is growing and currently unmet,” Wyonch said.
“We need to find a different way to meet that demand.”
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